The milkman always leaves the bottles right in front of the door, right where Esther could trip over them, so I make it my job every delivery day to move them to the side of the step. I leave the house at six every Monday morning so that I can do this, sliding the basket carefully to the side so that the bottles don't clink together. Today I notice that the hanging basket above the door looks a bit dry. I'll come back later and sort that out. One thing less for Philip to do.
It's a warm summer morning, already light, but the curtains are still closed upstairs. It's a bit late, I think, tucked behind the buddleia bush where I can see the house but they can't see me. I look at my watch. Seven thirty. They're normally up by now. Esther leaves for school at eight fifteen and I worry that she won't have time for a good breakfast if they've slept in. I know she likes Pop Tarts, I've seen them in the dustbin. Not the healthiest choice for her, but what can I do?
I lean back against the garden wall in the shadows. I can see the basketball hoop over the garage door from here. Esther doesn't play basketball. It hasn't been used for six months at least. I don't want to talk about how I know this.
I must have gone away for a moment, because I jump a little as the front door opens. There is a murmur as Andrea speaks to Esther on the doorstep, a jingle as she picks up the milk, and then Esther appears. She unlatches the gate and steps out into the street. I wait for the front door to click shut, give it another twenty seconds and then slip over the wall.
The school isn't far away, only ten minutes walk. I wonder, just like I've always wondered, how a parent could let something so precious to them wander out into the world alone. Esther looks to be about twelve. Too old to hold a hand, but too young to make the right choices. I follow at a safe distance. I'm good at this. She's never noticed me before. Her blonde hair swings from side to side across the back of her green blazer, but a little bit is caught under the strap of her bag. I hope it isn't hurting her. I hope nothing ever hurts her.
We're nearly at the school and I tense as we walk along the street where it happened. A child looks at me strangely as I clench my teeth and fists, refusing to look at the exact spot, the place where we were all tied together forever. I smile, the grimace of the walking dead - behind my teeth there is no soul. The child looks away sharply and hurries off.
Esther goes safely into school and I walk away.
I haven't done enough for today. Esther is where she needs to be and by now Philip will be at work. Andrea will be at home, like always. I go back to the house and watch her through the kitchen window. She lights a cigarette and stares into space, seated at the kitchen table. It's like this every day. She smiles for Esther and sends her on her way, but then sits in her dressing gown and smokes, one after the other. She doesn't eat or drink, she doesn't even get dressed until three o' clock so that Esther believes that she's been dressed all day. She's trying her best, I know.
I wonder how she'd feel if she knew that I was out here, feeling the same grief, the same emptiness. Andrea fills the hole with cigarettes but I need to do more than freeze in time. I need to reverse time, to put back the things that are missing. To take each small heartache and replace it with an invisible solution. The little things that would disappoint or hurt - I make them go away before they even know it's happened. I remember about the hanging baskets and sneak over with the watering can.
It's the little things, you see. When you have been robbed of something so enormous, so vast in its absence, the heart can't take the small daily insults. A chipped cup or a wilted flower can be enough to break down what meagre defences you have left. So I try to be there to intervene. It's the least I can do.
Last month, when Philip's car door was scratched I repaired it before he'd even seemed to notice it. I crouched on the driveway at two in the morning wearing a head torch, applying coats of paintwork restorer, buffing it away until the scratch was gone. When Andrea fell in the street and cut her hand I had run ahead to the house and put antiseptic cream through the letterbox. It must have been confusing for her, but at least I knew she had what she needed. Esther's so-called best friend was talking about her behind her back outside of school. I sent her a note and now she couldn't be nicer.
I refuse to let them suffer a day more.
It's three o' clock now so I go back to the school to walk Esther home again. She appears through the school gates, laughing with her friends, and I feel glad that she's had a good day. She has ballet later, which she loves. I wonder if she liked the new ballet tights that I sent.
They all cross the road and a man walks towards them, dressed in a leather jacket, swinging some car keys. I've never seen him before. He smiles at Esther and she and her friends stop to talk to him. It's clearly Esther he wants to speak to, as the other girls hang back, arms folded over their blazers. The man says something and Esther laughs and turns to her friends, signalling that she's going to go with this man. I feel a stab in my chest and a cold feeling that reminds me of the time before. The last time that I was outside this school watching a young life slip away.
She walks towards a silver BMW, chatting to this man, this stranger who I've never seen before. I walk faster, not daring to let her get further away. I'm struck by my indecision in this moment. I've walked behind her for months, not wanting any harm to come to her and now that her safety is finally at stake I'm hesitating, I'm hovering, I'm failing. Failing again, failing to go, failing to stop.
She slides into the passenger seat and I collapse inside like a house of cards, imploding slowly and then all at once. I run, not caring any more if I am seen. I have to stop this. I can't let this happen again to Andrea and Philip. The car pulls away and I claw ineffectually at the rear passenger door. Neither of them notice.
The car is still moving slowly enough for me to put on some speed and I run close alongside until I reach the bonnet. I see the man's stunned expression as I hurl myself towards it, bouncing off the metal as he tries to swerve. There is pain as I bounce from bonnet to road, my head landing heavily on the ground. Everything goes black.
I can only see a little through the slits of my eyes, only opening enough to see through the shade of my eyelashes. I'm on the road still. This feels familiar but also different. Reversed.
It's her, someone says. A man's voice.
It's her, I remember her from court.
Esther's crying and I want to soothe her, to reach out, but I can't. I'm trapped inside. I want to tell her I'm sorry, that I couldn't stop in time for her brother. But I stopped this for her. I hear more voices. An ambulance is coming. The driver, the abductor's voice comes again. He's calling Andrea, he says. He knows them. Esther knows him.
I can see hazily. She's crying against his leather jacket. Everything is so familiar, it's the same as when she cried against the teacher's jacket when her brother was lying in the road. When I was frozen behind the wheel, unable to move, unable to speak.
I've tried so hard to make it right. Little things to make a day easier, to relieve an aching heart. I know it was never enough. I close my eyes and think that maybe this will be the last small act of kindness.